When Scream was released in 1996, it was credited as being a clever and subversive take on the slasher films that ran rampant through cinemas and video stores in the 80s and early 90s.
The only problem is that the tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek nature of its follow-ups often did more to desecrate and mock the legacy of these films than respect it. As the series ran on, it became much more cynical and condescending in its tone, possibly at the expense of losing many of the films horror-starved fans along the way.
Thankfully, The Cabin in the Woods is a film that isnt fearful of turning the many tropes of horror films on their heads, all while joining in on the ghoulish fun.
The setup is typical five friends journey to the decrepit old cabin of Curts (Chris Hemsworth) cousin, with the newly single Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curts newly blonde girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), the resident smart guy Holden (Jesse Williams) and token stoner and conspiracy theorist Marty (Fran Kranz). The characters are initially painted in broad and stereotypical strokes, but like the plot of the film, theres much more depth to each character.
The film forms a love-hate relationship with its inspirations from the start, even down to starting with the aging doomsayer who warns the kids of the trouble that lies ahead, only for them to blow him off and head out for their weekend of debauchery. The audience knows this individual is onto whatever form of terror is on its way, but were only just scratching the surface.
Theres also two fine performances from Six Feet Under actor Richard Jenkins and the always reliable Bradley Whitford, whos right at home playing the sort of standoffish jerk he cleverly played in shows such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. To put it broadly, the pair are keen to whats really happening with these five college-aged individuals lining up for the slaughter, but part of the films mystique is staying away from spoilers going in.
What can be said is that The Cabin in the Woods is an adeptly written horror feature thats part The Truman Show and part Evil Dead II, thanks to the screenwriting team of Cloverfield writer Drew Goddard and Buffy the Vampire Slayer scribe Joss Whedon.
They approach the material with a genre-savvy, postmodern mindset that has been echoed in recent releases like 21 Jump Street, which also found a careful balance between making a certain type of film and playfully and respectfully poking fun at it.
The genre throwback has unfortunately sat on the shelves for three years due to a financial fiasco at its original studio, MGM. Yet it is still as witty and potent as if Goddard and Whedon had written it amid the current crop of acclaimed horror films, such as Insidious or Paranormal Activity, even if it does sacrifice the sort of scares those films generate in favor of clever banter and hilarious gags.
Even a late third-act cameo that is eerily reminiscent of another recent film doesnt kill the goodwill The Cabin in the Woods earns during its running length. In fact, the cameo is actually deployed much more craftily here than it was before.
Many of the films scares or initial shocks are segued by laughter. For instance, an early scene that establishes the chilling atmospheres of the cabin quickly gives way to each characters stereotypes being humorously explored as a mysterious force begins to pull them into the sort of clich old dingy cellar that will inevitably unleash some sort of evil force.
When the cellar door swings open violently, Curt simply responds by saying, Must be the wind, to which the audience responds with laughter and a knowingness that things obviously arent as they seem.
The performances from the wide range of talent on display here are generally good all around, avoiding some of the cookie-cutter casting increasingly evident in big-budget horror remakes of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. The cast is attractive, but what they lack in surface flaws is made up for in their immoral nature displayed throughout the film.
A standout is Kanz, who Whedon fans will recognize as the slimy programmer Topher of Dollhouse. Here, he plays the lovable and paranoid stoner character of Marty. Kanz couldve lazily followed in the footsteps of stoner icons like Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but instead turns out to be the sort of wisecracking pothead who can be found canvassing the local college campus rather than munching pizza in his van.
Much like the other performances on display, Kanz evokes the sort of skill and creativity that isnt normally found in these types of films.
The Cabin in the Woods wont disappoint those whove been waiting for it to hit theaters for nearly three years, and it may even coast along on enough charm and scares to connect with a major cult audience in the way similarly-minded films like Shaun of the Dead have in the past.
It isnt likely to become one of those monotonous slasher flicks audiences forget because in the good hands of Goddard and Whedon, Cabin offers a rare treat in terror that ultimately delights on all fronts.